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Cultural reconciliation

The man-made landscape of Australia is the combined result of two vastly different cultural philosophies and systems of land management with the legacy and high-impact urban European society totally changing a continent in a brief period of about 250 years, its agriculture and pastoralism superimposed on the c. 65,000 year-old Aboriginal occupation whose environmental impacts we are yet to fully assess. It must be seen, as Professor Geoffrey Blainey points out above, as a clash of world views so great that comparisons appear impossible.

In setting goals for the future we inevitably draw on experiences and interpretations of events that occurred in the past. After 225 years of European settlement it seems that there has been a more objective realization by present-day Australians of the land management skills employed by First Australians who occupied and lived sustainably on an entire continent. These skills are only now becoming appreciated. But in trying to reconcile our thinking about two vastly different cultures we must revisit past assumptions about life, the beliefs of other peoples and, especially, the ways of land management as they existed in the past . . . only by confronting differences can we begin the process of setting a mutally acceptable path for the future.

From a detached biological perspective the European and Aboriginal ways of life at the time of European occupation/settlement/invasion can be interpreted as alternative ways of managing the most crucial relationship that confronts all organisms – that between themselves and their environment. In the case of humans this is essentially a relationship with the land. This is the core source of cultural conflict.

This is about an evolutionary relationship attempting to establish a sustainable future – the capacity to survive, reproduce, and flourish long-term. It is the gulf between the methods used by the European and native peoples to achieve this objective that is at the heart of their cultural conflict.

To achieve this (unspoken) end mostly European (Western) society has harnessed increasingly concentrated sources of energy to combat those forces of nature that might threaten its existence.
Australian Aboriginal society persisted for 65,000 with a low energy use mode of existence.

Baron von Mueller

Cathy Freeman competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

European society

Europeans occupying/settling/invading the continent we now know as Australia, landed on the shores of what was, to them, a vast new continent. They brought with them the experience of a complex mode of social organization that had evolved from the civilizations of the Mesopotamian core where people had had assembled into large, settled populations. The scale of these societies facilitated the cultural development of both physical and mental tools – the physical tools of technology, and mental tools like science, mathematics and much more.

European societies had honed these tools through millennia of cultural competition. They were skilled in both the large-scale integrating power of government and the disintegrating power of warfare. Their trade used wheeled vehicles and domesticated animals that could be harnessed for both transport and food. Many of the new arrivals had lived in cities with monumental architecture, the residents fed by an elaborate system of food production using the intensive agriculture of domesticated animals and plants.

Their sophisticated technology included machines and transport systems, galleons and guns that could be used to dominate other peoples. Theirs was a society that, at their time of arrival, was on the brink of an energy transformation, an Industrial Revolution driven by the concentrated energy of fossil fuels that would greatly accelerate increasing complexity of their social organization.

Aboriginal society

Aboriginal Palaeolithic society had occupied this land continuously for about 65,000 years, towards 60,000 years longer than the continuous human occupation of the British Isles after the last Ice Age. Communities consisted of small bands of mostly nomadic people organized into tribes of 10-20 (-100) people – without domesticated animals and plants, no written language, wheels, metalwork, or pottery, no ocean-going ships, monumental architecture, and more than 250 different spoken languages.

Europeans had at their disposal, all the necessary mental and physical conditions to subdue other people; and they used them.

Historically, competitive societies have used every possible advantage to take control others and, sadly, this is too often still true today. Today we understand that possession of the tools of social domination does not justify their use for that purpose. Nor does it imply the moral superiority of those who possess them, or that their possession is always for the better.

European perceptions

Sailing into a new land from the Age of the Enlightenment the Europeans brought to New Holland the certitude of Christian theism, not only as an explanation of creation but as a system of moral guidance. The theory of evolution was 100 years away. Living organisms were perceived as immutable, each created individually by God. There was no understanding of the depth of geological time, the beginning of the Earth and Universe was presumed to date back just a few thousand years.

European society was hierarchical, containing both the exalted and the lowly, as ordained by God – although the inevitability of this social order was increasingly under question as the Enlightenment progressed.

European culture was aware of the intellectual achievements of the educated Greeks and ancients, the engineering feats of the Roman Empire, its sophisticated art, and the social, political and economic advantages that flowed from widespread commerce and trade. There was a sense of civilization as the integrated activity of industry, transport systems, and infrastructure technology. Aborigines lived within boundless wild nature. Europeans lived within bounded culture – the man-created villages, towns and cities that were set in rural landscapes of hedged and fenced fields. For the European, boundaries of physical space became the familiar boundaries that defined their lives: they were boundaries that suggested social values as well as social functions. They included:

• space for domesticated plants and animals as grazing land and cereal crops, also orchards, vegetable plots, and vineyards
• space for domestic housing
• communal space: a city square or forum for discussion generally including a place for trade, places for recreation, relaxation, and entertainment
• an administrative centre, usually the ruler’s palace and its grounds
• religious space for temples and various monuments associated with the dead
• connecting space for the passage of people and goods

Europeans used mental categories that distinguished between human space and natural space, objects of nature and objects of culture – categories that were foreign to the Aboriginal.

Settler ideas included notions of ‘work’, ‘profit’, ‘property’, and ‘ownership’ combined with a linear sense of ‘moral improvement’ and societal ‘progress‘. Competition between nations in Europe had followed a path whereby navigation skills, combined with superior ships and weaponry, facilitated territorial expansion, security, and prosperity. Aboriginal society was more directed towards a cyclical and timeless mode of thinking.

Europeans were impressed by cultures that shared and outshone their own values. Vast cities calling on a diversity of foods, with developed art and decorative finery, new and interesting material goods, and a social structure, weaponry, and military capacity that was mightier than their own. They were looking for peoples who had ‘progressed’ beyond their own level of existence . . . in governance, science, technology, art, or trade. At the very least they desired material objects of some artistic, economic or social value – like spices, exotic foods, precious metals, gems, or other tradable items.

What Europeans found in New Holland was a Stone-age culture that had been by-passed by the Bronze and Iron ages, lacking even the wheel and pottery; there was an oral history but no written record to act as a repository of records and ideas; material culture was, to all intents and purposes, absent – no machinery, no grand buildings or monuments to announce the presence of humans with status, vision and power . . . just simple temporary shelters and almost no evidence of any physical impact on the landscape at all; only the simplest industry; no obvious legal system; no maps or coins; no agriculture; no use of boiled water; far from possessing and displaying magnificent or interesting clothing they were mostly completely naked; no science, no apparent astronomy; a crude diagrammatic art; extremely simple flimsy, barely seaworthy canoes or rafts constructed from bark or bamboo and without sails; no beasts of burden or domesticated animals (except the dingo) to provide food and company, and to ease the burden of transport and toil; then last, but by no means least, ineffective weaponry of spears and clubs that could not possibly compete with their muskets.

To all this cultural blandness could be added the extreme environmental discomfort of flies, eye infections and various other physical deprivations including minimal shelter and permanent direct exposure to the sun, heat and cold.

Several early navigators even noted an absence of curiosity with no desire for either their visitors’ possessions, or interest in their ships and technology, sometimes even ignoring the trinkets, hatchets or clothes that were offered. Food was rarely stored and cooking was done on fires and in simple earth ovens without the use of boiling water.

Provisions were hunted and gathered from day to day which reminded the Europeans of the scavenging European poor – an impression of poverty and deprivation that was reinforced by their nakedness. Decision-making through a system of Elders, so different from the kings and queens of Europe and the indigenous chieftains the British had encountered among the New Zealand Maori and North American Indians, gave the impression that there was no form of governance to this rudderless, aimlessly wandering and fatalistic society.

It seemed that the Aboriginal had not ‘advanced’ or ‘progressed’ in any way and lacked dignity, industry, and culture, locked into a cosmology of permanent poverty while reacting passively and opportunistically to nature rather than imposing themselves on it and transforming it to their own ends: unable to initiate or even countenance a brighter future. It was as if the new arrivals were experiencing an earlier phase of human history than their own . . . a ‘lower’ level of existence.

To European eyes this was a people teetering on the brink of survival under the harshest imaginable conditions, eking out a squalid existence from a meagre supply of unappetizing food, forced into the deprivations of a harsh nomadic lifestyle by poor weapons and inadequate technology.

So, condemned as primitive Stone-age savages Aboriginals were seen as even less worthy of respect than the lowest of Europe’s own people. Aboriginals were first allowed to vote in European-style elections in Australia in 1967.

Dampier’s judgment of Aboriginals as ‘the miserablest people in the world’ simply echoed the sentiments of the Dutch seafarers who had preceded him. It was only with the arrival of Cook and the Enlightenment that we witness the dawn of a different set of values, a hint of a different way of seeing things, although Charles Darwin‘s dismissive attitude would persist: ‘a set of harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night, gaining their livelihood from hunting in the woods[9]


In the 14th century across the world, apart from the few elite and privileged wealthy the standard of living for almost all amounted to subsistence based on agriculture. In Europe this situation would gradually change as material standards gradually rose into the Industrial Revolution. However, it would be the 19th century before the material conditions of Europeans could be considered greater than those of Aboriginal Australians.[16] While the First Australian settlers at Botany Bay waited in desperation for food supplies arriving in European ships the native people enjoyed high quality meat and a diversity of greens, seed and fruit. The material possessions so important to the European were a burden to the nomadic lifestyle. Personal initiative and enterprise was not measured in wealth but in the economy of efficient simplicity.

Walkabout was the means by which Aboriginals gained food (water), water, energy, and materials (artefacts) while facilitating social connections and reinforcing the spiritual connection with the land. This was all at once a trading system, transport system, and a method of resource collection and distribution. Tools from the land combined with muscle-power were the instruments of production.

As an extremely simple economic system its throughput was well within the assimilative and regenerative capacity of its environment, with the possible exception of some impacts produced by fire and hunting and there was a fair and efficient allocation of the resources needed for day-to-day living.


Though exposed to Pacific agriculture, mainland Aboriginals did not take up plant cultivation of plants in plantations or ‘fields’, the reasons for this being unclear. Perhaps it was simply perceived as unnecessary encumbrance.

Settlers wondered why the Neolithic Revolution had passed by the continent of Australia. And yet agriculture was practised close to the northern shores and had not been taken up. Perhaps the key question here is not ‘why didn’t Aboriginals take up agriculture?’ to become ‘Europeanised’ and ‘civilized’ but, more to the point, ‘what mix of cultural, environmental and demographic factors would induce a society to become pastoralists or horticulturists?’ Clarke 2007, p.147 In other words, Europeans found themselves in the presence of a race of people that had clearly successfully managed what was to them a ‘difficult’ land … so why didn’t Europeans become ‘Aboriginalised’?

There are remarkably few accounts of white people living for extended periods with Aboriginals in the early days of settlement and therefore able to speak authoritatively about their customs and way of life. There are accounts exist butboth are written as reminiscences by other people and the pressure to please the readership by embellishing the truth is difficult to assess.

Buckley was illiterate and his account was transcribed when he was 72 years old: it was clearly intended to make money for the insolvent publishers Morgan and Buckley.

Thomas Petrie’s (1831–1910) family arrived in Sydney from Edinburgh in 1831, moving to Brisbane in 1837 when he was just six years old and here from a very early age he mixed freely with the local Aboriginals, becoming fluent in the Turrbal language and joining them on walkabouts including, at the age of 14, an experience of the Bonyi feast (nuts from the Bunya-Bunya pine) in the Blackall mountains.

After some gold prospecting in Victoria he returned to Brisbane to continue exploration and his life as a grazier on his property Murrumba, an aboriginal word meaning “good place”. His reminiscences of Aboriginal life were recorded by his daughter Constance Campbell Petrie in 1904 and published in 1932. This account does not appear to hold back about both black and white behaviour that might be confronting today. Constance mentions the deterioration in the lives of the people whose company her father had greatly enjoyed. ‘They used to be fine, athletic men, remarkably free from disease, tall, well-made and graceful, with wonderful powers of enjoyment; now they are often miserable, diseased, degraded creatures. The whites have contaminated them.

Overall there seems to have been little attempt to understand the way of life of Aboriginals, and if such an attempts had been seriously embarked on things could have been far less painful. Settlers drove Aborigines from land which had good soil and a supply of water assuming they were infinitely adaptable, not realising that these factors were vital to their lives too, and that they could not move into new territories without reprisal. Taking white man’s property both out of desperation for food and resentment at being dispossessed of land were quickly countered with violent reprisals leading to cycles of tit-for-tat violence. Petrie, at least, having lived with and enjoyed the company of Aboriginals could understand and articulate this terrible and unequal deadlock with genuine insight into the Aboriginal perspective.[15]


Plant distributions may have been altered locally as food has been carried from collecting sites to camp sites (fruit trees growing on and around middens) but long-distance transport is most likely for plants with spiritual or ornamental value as bulk food does not appear to have been part of trade, people going to the sites of plenty rather than carrying excess across land. Even so seed may have been traded across the continent, the most likely being wattle seed.


Aboriginals lived in small nomadic bands rarely exceeding 30 people, occasionally several groups uniting in corroboree. Europeans were accustomed to conurbations based on land ownership and a monetary system.

Land ownership

Management and occupation of defined and protected territories by people of particular language groups (nations) was clearly a form of land ownership. In another sense though the land owned its residents as Aboriginals carried a deep spiritual connection with the land through the Dreaming. Aboriginal law carried with it the obligation of land management: people ‘belonged’ to the land which was inherited by its occupants: This contrasted with the European ideas of strict physical land enclosure using walls and fences, combined with a process of buying, selling, and leasing.

Researchers have now learned to be cautious in making generalizations about Aboriginal culture. Across the continent there were different people with language groups operating under different cultural systems: there were widely divergent environmental factors and climates at play as customs, climate and plants could all differ widely from one area to th next.


The Dreaming, as law, incorporated empirical wisdom by placing restrictions on the use of resources by means of the taboo although sometimes the environmental logic was not apparent, as when for a long period no fish were eaten in Tasmania.

The estimate of Aboriginal population in 1788 often quoted to this day is that of social anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown who in the Australian Yearbook of 1930 estimated 300,000 while archaeologist John Mulvaney in 1999 has placed an upper limit of about 750,000.[1] Certainly, as now, favourable environments like lakes, rivers, estuaries and the coast supported more concentrated populations, notably parts of the Arnhem Land coast in the north, the east coast, south-west and probably highest in the Murray-Darling basin. Whether some sort of population equilibrium had been reached between population and environment in each language group area is a matter of conjecture?

Several factors acted as a curb on population numbers. For nomads only one breast-fed child-in-arms was manageable, especially as women were also expected to carry camping tools, food and possibly a firestick. Infanticide was widely practiced across the continent and it included: deformed children; twins; babies born in quick succession; illegitimate children; those born when the mother died in childbirth; there were also induced abortions.[2] Cannibalism, although practiced, probably had a minimal effect and was rarely a motive for killing: [3] battles and killings by spearing or clubbing were quite frequent.[4] It seems likely that population increase and recovery would generally have been extremely slow.[5]

William Buckley (1780 – 1856), a military man said to stand 6’6” (198cm) tall and who lived with the Wathaurung people on the Bellarine Peninsula for 32 years experienced frequent killing and bloodshed.[6] Evidence from many sourcs indicates Aboriginal life as violent and fearful based on retribution, raids and internal warfare. Perhaps Edward Stone Parker (1802-1865), who was Assistant Protector of Aborigines living at Mount Franklin District between Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, expressed the situation well as ‘On the whole their way of life was a satisfactory one, and could have been almost idyllic – but for their frequent fighting and persistent fear of revenge‘.[17]

In SW Victoria channels were built between swamps as an aid to eel farming. At Lake Condah there were what are probably the greatest structural modifications known, including stone races, canals, traps and stone walls, the canals up to 1 m deep and 300 m long in an elaborate eel-farming complex where there were also houses with stone foundations with low stone walls suitable for a single family. Other tidal fish traps were built on the Barwon River and have also been found on the coast. One paddock contained 146 of these structures together suggesting a village population of about 700 people. The discovery, made in 1981, is probably the single best example of sedentism in Australia.[18]

Mostly late Holocene shell middens occur along most of the Australian coastline, their alkaline soils made of shells sometimes supporting a characteristic flora along with the fruits of trees of generations of plants resulting from spit pips.

Firing could result in erosion and the washing of silt from higher to lower ground.

Population density increases in the last 5,000 years, the introduction of the dingo, with alteration of trophic relations and vegetational change through anthropogenic burning. Some, but still relatively, little physical impact.

Aboriginal land management can cause large-scale and long-term modification of the environment including animal and plant extinctions – though at nothing like the rate of European land management practices. Aboriginal disturbance is likely to recover within a generation or two.

A balanced account of Aboriginal environmental change during c. 50,000 years of occupation cannot be considered without some mention of the subsequent European impacts over 250 years: conversion of land to agriculture with practices that alter the soil composition, chemistry and water regimes, grazing over about 60% of the land and the impact of hooved and other domesticated animals; forestry; urban settlements; creation of continent-wide connecting roads and railways, diversion and alteration of waterways by dams, weirs, artificial lakes and irrigation schemes; introduction of feral plants and animals, fox, cat, camel, brumby, water buffalo, pigs, birds, rats and mice, rabbits.

Difficult discussions concerning conservation, restoration, pristine nature and what all these words mean and entail can be complicated and unproductive. The idea of sustainability though equally dogged by imprecision nevertheless conveys the idea of preserving the natural environment as best we can for the benefit of future generations. How that can be done is discussed elsewhere on this site.

Finally it is interesting, though perhaps unproductive in many ways, to speculate on the possible path of Aboriginal culture had Europeans not occupied the continent. Perhaps Australia was best suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than agriculture, for example, which is more likely were there is regular and reliable rainfall and domesticated animals. (see social evolution)

Tasmanians were the most southerly population on earth.

Coastal archaeological sites are now under water.

By 20,000 BP there are sites in mountains, deserts and across the continent[K p.23]

The environmental impact of small groups of nomadic people would have been negligible, possibly some alteration to animal populations with its subsequent trophic cascade as a consequence of hunting, plant consumption and redistribution (see Pre-settlement plant introduction) and possibly some influence through fire: impact was probably related to individual consumption and therefore population number. Even so it is tempting to speculate on why there was such expansive migration – was this a consequence of using up food supplies and therefore a constant search for greater abundance and variety of food? Was it to avoid possible violent contact with other tribes? Curiosity and a sense of adventure? We do not know.

The nomadic lifestyle meant that Aboriginals never formed large settled integrated communities where the scale of numbers could be exploited to produce monumental architecture, ocean-going ships, elaborate ceramics, industry, manufacturing, transport systems and infrastructure.

Burning would have consumed vast amounts of energy but this was compensated by regeneration although the effects of human burning are complex in relation to trophic cascades, vegetation structure, extinctions and general ecology.

Estimates of global prehistoric human population numbers is that at the end of the last Ice Age 12-13,000 years ago suggest 4 – 6 million people (about the number in present-day Melbourne) with an explosion in numbers during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to reach about 60-70 million by about 6,000 BP. However, some studies indicate an earlier rise before the Neolithic around 25,000 years ago noting that even during the glacial period conditions through the tropics would have been mild and fertile.

Yet other genetic data suggests that a period of population growth may have occurred in the Paleolithic perhaps 60,000-80,000 years ago.[30] Workers used a large data set from 20 different genomic regions and mitochondrial DNA of individuals from 66 African and Eurasian populations comparing their results with archaeological findings. The reasons for this early population growth are unsure, possibly linked to the emergence of more advanced hunting technologies or the influence of climate change. Those populations in the Near East that later adopted a sedentary farming lifestyle during the Neolithic had undergone the greatest Paleolithic expansions while the Eurasian nomadic herders experienced only moderate Paleolithic growth and no expansion was detected in the African nomadic hunter-gatherers. Population growth may thus have contributed to the adoption of agriculture.

Enlightenment thinking

Not all Europeans were dismissive of Aboriginal existence. A clearly articulated example of a more empathic (and self-critical) impression of Aboriginal life comes to us from explorer James Cook himself:

They may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon the earth: but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of condition: the earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not magnificent houses, household stuff etc they live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome air: so they have very little need of clothing and this they seem to be fully sensible of for many to whom we gave cloth etc to, left it carelessly upon the sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seemed to set not value upon anything we gave them nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for one article we could offer them this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of life and that they have no superfluities.

James Cook‘s journal

It does seem likely that Cook was, at this time, influenced to a degree by the fashionable Romantic Enlightenment writings of people like Rousseau who glorified the simple lives of what he termed the ‘noble savage’. Historian Manning Clarke colourfully notes that when Cook returned from his first voyage the ‘coffee-house wits and the mockers ridiculed his enthusiasm for the noble savage . . .’[5]

We know from the writings of people like William Buckley, who lived with Aboriginal communities for 32 years, that Aboriginal life was no paradise. Bloodshed and warfare was frequent, at least within his communities, and presumably elsewhere. William Buckley, who on Christmas day 1803 had escaped from the Sorrento camp of David Collins when attempting the first settlement of Port Phillip Bay, had lived with the Watha Warrung in Victoria.[6] In an account of his experience he noted that abundance was common, scarcity rare and that walks were undertaken for hunting or simple enjoyment.[7]

The idea that life was ‘miserable’ was not clearly evident. Explorer Hovell considered that Aboriginals had their liberty and were happy in themselves. Other explorers noted that the Aboriginal temperament was mostly good-natured and cheerful, with few wants.

Surveyor Clement Hodgkinson (1818-1893) who worked in both New South Wales and Victoria, taking a special interest in Aboriginal life, expressed a similar moderate view that painted a brighter picture of Aboriginal life and a less glowing assessment of the European:

For what great inducement does the monotonous and toilsome existence of the labouring classes in civilised communities offer, to make the savage abandon his independent and careless life, diversified by the exciting occupations of hunting, fishing, fighting, and dancing.[10]

A different way

With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the material possessions, so valued by Europeans as a mark of success, were an unnecessary and largely irrelevant encumbrance in nomadic society. Acquisition of personal property and, indeed, any material objects, was a restriction on movement. Success in daily living was achieved by maximizing simplicity and energy conservation: absolute parsimony rather than material accumulation.

The ability to survive and flourish from day to day using the simplest technology indicated a total mastery of the immediate physical environment including the vagaries of climate and seasons and the subtle interaction between plants, animals and the land.

Energy was conserved through a lifestyle that was in tune with the seasonal cycles of food production, taking advantage of energy sources when the opportunity arose, minimizing unnecessary and unenjoyable expenditure of energy in labour-intensive activities like building and construction, and carrying. Aboriginals were so well adapted to the environment that they were able to thrive in regions considered totally inhospitable to the white settlers. Explorer Eyre noted: ‘In the arid, barren, naked plains of the north, with not a shrub to shelter him from the heat, not a stick to burn for his fire (except what he carried with him), the native is found’ [2] and that there were no localities ‘. . . however sterile and inhospitable they might appear to the traveller, that do not hold out some inducements to the bordering savage to visit them, or at the proper seasons of the year provide him with the means of sustenance.”[3] Land regarded as harsh and inhospitable, sending explorers Burke and Wills to their death was, for Aboriginals, a comfortable and productive home.

The European state of being civilized through being ‘settled’ and ‘domesticated’ was as curious to Aboriginals as their apparently aimless ‘wandering’ in wild nature was to the Europeans who did not understand that going ‘walkabout’ was akin to a religious pilgrimage. Aboriginals saw themselves as part of the landscape, physically and spiritually: they did not make the distinction between culture and landscape so evident to European sensibilities.

The Aboriginal response to excessive demand on resources was to decrease demand by population control, this sometimes entailed infanticide. The European way of dealing with lack of food and raw materials was to increase supply, simply avoiding population control and accessing more resources. Far from being malnourished it is now recognized that in many parts of Australia (especially along the Murray and Riverina, in Arnhemland, and most of Tasmania) Aboriginals enjoyed an ample and varied food supply and plenty of leisure time for ceremony and ritual (which contrasted starkly with the early settlers’ daily rations of salted meat, flour, tea, sugar and rum) . For part of the year the plant diet consisted of a wide range of greens, nuts, and fruits together with, as we now know, the extremely healthy meat of the kangaroo and other animals together with a wide range of seafood on the coast. There is no reason to think calories and protein intake poor and, as with many other hunter-gatherers, deficiency diseases were not a problem. Many foods are a matter of acquired taste, they are what we have become used to, whether this be caviar, artichoke, or ginger. Plants which to English botanist Joseph Hooker were ‘eatable but not worth eating’ could have been delicacies to the Aboriginals. But Aboriginals survived in plenty where explorers Burke and Wills had died of exposure, fatigue and hunger. A harsh environment to Europeans was perceived as benign to Aboriginals. The variety of foods known and used far exceeded the few meats, cereals, greens and fruits available to the vast majority of citizens either in Europe’s great cities or the rural peasantry of the eighteenth century and before.

Nakedness was a matter of physical comfort in such a climate and generally warm Australia obviously called for few if any clothes. The European needed clothes not only as protection from the European climate but as a symbol of social status. The needs of food, shelter, health protection from the elements were amply met. Furs and animal skins were worn when the temperature demanded it. Perhaps questionable European sexual sensibilities were at play here. Compare nakedness with the absurdly uncomfortable and climatically inappropriate ceremonial military uniforms worn by the British elite.

Civilized societies and their cities brought their own set of problems: epidemic disease; often a subjugated and mistreated slave class and extreme disparities in wealth and material welfare.

Though it was clear that Aboriginal life was no idyllic paradise, could it be that the unthinkable had occurred . . .  that, in spite of the uncertainties and discomforts, here was a people that was accepting of what it had, in the sense that they felt no need, urge, or necessity for the ‘improvement’ or ‘progress’ that was so much a part of European life – their life was enough as it was. European concern with Aboriginal lack of industry can be viewed in converse. What is it about the European that is so mentally unsettled, so driven, so obsessed with progress and improvement, so set on a growth and prosperity that must never end and never be resolved to a state of social and political satisfaction? Sociologist Max Weber described this drive as ‘The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’.

In spite of the undoubted physical discomforts the Aboriginals had physical advantages. Dark skin protects against ultraviolet radiation, radiates excess heat and resists sunburn and skin cancer. Although both modern and ancient Aboriginals exhibited considerable variability in body shape, overall their lean bodies and thin legs assisted energy conservation, acting as a form of thermo-regulation in hot, dry conditions. (Flood, pp. 186-188)

From this account it is clear that Aboriginal life, while deeply spiritual, was also grounded firmly in the physical objects of the natural world around them – the daily needs for food, clothing, ornaments, hunting implements and tools all obtained from local resources or traded materials – essentially stone, bark, timber and earth. None were in quantities likely to impede walking parties, and all were made in accordance with laws established in the Dreaming which reinforced respect for the land and its spirituality. Presence within the landscape of creator-ancestors meant a profound physical and spiritual connection to the natural world on which they depended.

In contrast, early European settlers, for all their technological and scientific expertise, brought with them a religion and belief system that concentrated on a life hereafter in a place totally detached from, and superior to, the physical world here on Earth. Humans were separated from nature which had, in the course of the Agricultural Revolution, become something to be tamed, overcome and exploited – it was not an object of respect.

In 1788, except in a few places, most Europeans were illiterate and learning a privilege. Settlers transformed the landscape according to their general belief system and pre-conceptions concerning land management – by the use of traditional European practices fire, clearing (especially forest), roads, ploughing, irrigating, damming, erecting fences, walls and hedges, building houses and introducing foreign organisms. While the behavioural code of the European settlers, which was grounded in the strictures of Christianity’s Old and New Testaments, was mostly about the way people should relate to one-another, the emphasis of the Dreaming was on how people should relate to the land.

Perhaps the lack of domesticable plants and animals had decreased the probability of agriculture? In the absence of the civilizing influence of agriculture the European felt obliged to raise what they regarded as backward savages into a civilized way of being. This was usually attempted by encouraging the adoption of morally uplifting European customs through a European education (especially for the children), generally in a Christian Mission.

Government by a group of Elders so puzzling to Europeans could be interpreted as a far more mature system of government, akin to true democracy, in contrast to the autocratic and absolutist systems left behind by the Europeans.

As Professor Blainey has said, It is tempting to praise or condemn the practices and restraints used by Aboriginals but their and our values are ephemeral because they arise from necessities and background of different societies. [4]

One group of people saw a landscape that was sufficient as it was, a life-support system rich in spirituality, a rich and beautiful land bearing the signatures and physical manifestations of ancestry back to the dawn of time: it was a heritage to be carefully managed and protected. The other people arrived seeking profit and political advantage; they saw harshness – an inhospitable environment, and human poverty. Once on the land, they set out to tame it, control it, and improve it. To the European the desire to preserve things as they were seemed like a stultifying conservatism, a complacency that was holding back beneficial change.

We perhaps see in the European a kind of spiritual impoverishment: a world of lesser meaning, significance and intensity. Though scientific explanations need in no way diminish the wonder and mystery of the world around us, it does seem that someone viewing vegetation from a train window would be much less sensitized to this world than an Aboriginal standing within a landscape of Creator-spirits and the spirits of their human ancestors, manifest through the features of the landscape and the organisms that live there. The two worlds are not at heart so different, but the former seems for most people to lack colour and engagement.

Today it is possible to see the European relationship with the land as profoundly dysfunctional and mistaken, part of the supreme arrogance that prompted the hubristic dismissal of Aboriginal culture and the mistreatment of its people. Is this a form of disconnection, the detachment of science and the intervention of culture that has distanced Western society from its roots in nature? Should this be of any concern? In setting a course for the future we can also assess the past and consider alternatives (see Aboriginal legacy).

Aboriginal culture is prone to accusations of cultural conservatism, primarily in relation to the acceptance of new technology and ideas. However, there are certainly grounds for a similar claim against Europeans in relation to land management. After 225 years of occupation the many environmental issues confronting ‘western’ culture indicate that Europeans have still not learned to work with nature rather than trying to ‘overcome’ it. There has been no acceptance of native plants as food, the seasonal calendar of winter, spring, summer and autumn so inappropriate for many parts of Australia remains in use. Because the settlers regarded their new environment as ‘harsh’ and ‘poor’ it seems that the vegetation was regarded in a similar way, simply passing over the fact that in sheer numbers of unique and different kinds Australia has an extremely rich palette of about 25,000 species compared to the relatively poor British flora of some 2,700 species. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the environmentally alienated perception (still evident) of harshness, poverty, and topsy-turvyness so often attributed to the Australian environment is the consequence of the conservative European lens through which it was and is viewed and a disappointment with plants that cannot be harvested on a commercial scale.

Anthropologists have pointed out how much cultural identity is tied up in food, not only the kinds that are eaten, the way they are cooked and the social rituals that are associated with them.

Inevitably, as Aboriginal culture was progressively crippled and absorbed into settler lifestyles, it changed from a seasonally varied diet into fewer foods from fixed localities, for many becoming a Mission diet of sugar, flour and tea and there are reports of Aboriginals finding the flavours of European foods, too sweet and strong – even throwing bread loaves away. tobacco and European alcohol were certainly enjoyed.


To Western perception Australia’s first people remain an enigma, their mode of being posing deep and uncomfortable questions. They, like many indigenous people around the world, suffered the consequences of European colonial expansion. How are we to reconcile the two cultures and how are we to interpret and address past colonial behaviour?

Today’s historians exemplify this ambivalence by adopting either a ‘black armband’ or ‘white blindfold’ interpretation of Australian colonial history. What can we learn about the treatment of one people by another, the motivations of colonising societies, the impacts and consequences of vastly different lifestyles, what we mean by happiness, progress, material well-being, human improvement, and what all this means for our collective long-term relationship with nature.

What can these two wildly different social systems learn from one-another?

Western society is now irretrievably wedded to the science and technology that gave it so much power and relieved it of the toil and discomforts of living on the land – the flies, smells, sitting on the ground, excessive heat and cold, pain, killing our own food and much much more. Like Cook, some commentators continued to question the idea of the Aboriginal as a ‘miserable wretch’. Some others conceded that Aboriginals were mostly good-natured and cheerful with few wants. The Aboriginal viewed white man as a strange plodding race, mostly living as slaves, moving from day to day in a life of constant drudgery. One nationality saw a landscape that was their life, rich in spirituality: the other saw harshness and the desire to control and improve material conditions through technology and profit.

Whatever we make of all this we cannot or will not ‘go back’. Europeans may learn to love the bush, work more with the natural ecology, and feel a proud sense of place but will certainly not become ‘Aboriginalised’ as they had once wished Aboriginals to become ‘Europeanised’. Perhaps all cultures are conservative in their customs relating to food. From first settlement access to native foods collected or cultivated on Australian land was minimal. Maybe the country simply does not support suitable plants, the only indigenous commercial crop available today being Macadamia, other possible plants difficult to cultivate, collect and process, or insufficiently flavoursome for its customer base, or in not available in sufficient quantity. In any case western land management and agriculture arrived to make a major impact on the landscape through grazing, irrigation, drainage, land clearance for the cultivation of specially bred crops, altered fire regimes and more. Today we eat no truly natural animal or plant products – perhaps an occasional blackberry.

What settlers described in cold and detached terms as ‘land’, for an Aboriginal implies not just their surroundings from which they obtained their food but a rich imaginative world encompassing the spiritual wealth of the past, the Dreamtime and their ancestors: it was the timeless and unchanging focus of their being. Europeans either eliminated Aboriginals altogether (as in Tasmania) or expected them to join white man’s society at the lowest and most menial level. To formally take over a continent declaring it terra nullius, implying Aboriginals were unproductively disconnected from the land, must count among the greatest acts of western arrogance and ignorance perpetrated in any country. Although Europeans recording Aboriginal life often referred to it as timeless and unchanging, for archaeologist Peter Hiscock Aboriginal life was in a state of constant change. ‘Throughout Australian pre-history change in belief and cosmology as well as in economy and technology was the process by which people lived.’[16]

From the late 15th century European imperial colonial conquests subjugated and absorbed many of the world’s indigenous First Nations into Neo-European culture. These native peoples now share many common post-colonial problems, primarily those relating to land rights, evangelization, miscegenation (mixing of races), the imposition of alien legal and labour systems, and loss of their own culture (especially language, technology, religion, art, oral history) in addition to reduction in population. In keeping with 19th century colonial attitudes this can be perceived as a liberation from crude toil and ignorance but by the people themselves as a transformation by profit-based economic systems with different values, by new gender and social roles, education systems that do not include traditional values, new judicial and financial systems, complex government, and a loss of autonomy.Cahill, D p.13 in Kerwin 2012[8]

With the benefit of hindsight and the necessity to address the future what can be said about these cultural differences today. Has 225 years of European occupation changed European values? For Blainey . . .

Indisputably, a nomad existence was logical only so long as there was no cheap way of carrying food and raw materials to fixed settlements’[13]


We may never know the general state of well-being or happiness experienced by the first Australians. If we are to believe modern research, then assuming the environment posed no serious challenge (Aboriginals mostly survived with time for leisure), it is likely that base-level happiness was the same for both cultures although the environmental challenges of early European settlement would have made these early years unpleasant.

Even on the eve of the industrial revolution Aboriginals were among the world’s most fortunate people but social development would take its course as ‘Weak in armaments, they were unable to defend their lands effectively. They were lukewarm towards new technology, because of their long isolation. They were also too divided, too far apart territorially, to negotiate a peace treaty and to enforce one if by chance it materialized.’[14]

Viewed in purely material terms it was only after 1800 that Europeans began to exert convincing control of the supplies of food and raw materials, using science to develop higher-yielding livestock and plants, more efficient machinery, and the capacity to transport goods in fresh condition over long distances in trains and steamships, to exploit the energy of fossil fuels and new materials.

Without doubt humans have a competitive streak and will take advantage of anything that gives them a competitive advantage. This seems to be a natural corollary of an inevitable and innate self-interest. If Aboriginals truly found their life on the land tolerable and sufficient for their needs then present-day Western culture can surely feel only respect for peoples so intimately entwined with the natural world.

But old traditions die hard. Human development (the capacity to get things done as manifest through science, technology and social institutions) is on the side of the Westerner who is still on a trajectory of progress and improvement. In theory social development need not pit one people against another but in practice it has acted like an arms race, as a means for one group to exert political influence and power over others, to dominate and subjugate. The Europeans had sailing ships, deadly germs, guns, horses, oxen and ploughs.

In 1992 the Australian High Court decided that Australia should never have been regarded as terra nullius (no ones’ land) and that Australia’s First People both had, and retained, rights to the land. This led to the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993, recognizing the right of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders to access the land for living, hunting, fishing, teaching their customs, and observing their traditions. But only ‘some’ land is involved here. Tensions remain high, much remains to be done, and in 2021 First Australians still have no recognition in the Australian constitution.

Whatever tensions and differences currently exist between these two cultures Aboriginals have no need to either justify their traditional way of life or aspire to Western goals and ideals.

The simple but difficult lesson to learn is that Europeans were contingently advantaged: that is, their historical circumstances had given them tools that could be used to dominate other people. In crude existence any advantage will be taken, but in an enlightened society there will be acknowledgement of circumstance and circumstance does not equate to intrinsic or moral superiority.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Each culture has its own reality – its own world view. In the course of human history victors in battle have tended to either impose their own beliefs and institutions or to absorb those of the defeated. Today’s global grand narrative can in this way condemn former cultures into historical backwaters, minor tributaries feeding into the floodwaters of contemporary river. History becomes the story of the world’s powerful who are the entitled, the rest being minor players in this greater theme.

It is amazing that their 60,000 year presence on the continent has left so little obvious evidence. This situation is not helped by the quick spread of pastoralism across the continent after settlement which has obscured reference sites. In the absence of on-the-ground evidence explorers records may be used to test views about the cause and magnitude of landscape change prior to settlement. A recent investigation of popular assumptions concerning five key themes of environmental change (vegetation structure, fire regimes, waterhole permanence, macropod abundance and medium-size mammal assemblages) when compared against 4500 geo-referenced explorer records in the semi-arid and arid region of Queensland have indicated little change in broad vegetation structure or water hole permanence which runs counter to prevailing assumptions and also discusses the value of explorer records in assessing landcsape change.[15]

Australia’s first people were not noble savages living in a state of mystical and timeless bliss. Nor did they leave their land exactly as they found it. Though they sustained themselves for millennia with the simplest material culture known they were not without environmental impact.

Ideas of a pre-colonial Utopia were steadily dispelled as it became clear that all societies must adapt, with varying success, to the universal human emotions of fear, aggression, hatred, jealousy, and violence. Many eyewitness accounts of settlers indicate endemic violence in Aboriginal society as in other nomadic groups across the world.

Experienced happiness of European and Aboriginal were probably not as different as we might suppose (see Happiness). Unlike the majority of Europeans Aboriginals had a lifestyle with a rich and varied diet and little toil: in material terms it was probably only after 1800 that Europeans began to exert convincing control of the supplies of food and raw materials using science to develop higher-yielding livestock and plants, more efficient machinery, and the capacity to transport goods in fresh condition over long distances in trains and steamships, to exploit the energy of fossil fuels and new materials. European-style transport systems based on the wheel allowed settled communities to use the leverage of scale to build cities, sophisticated governance, written record systems and all the trappings of civilisation including science, technology and medicine. It was not long before the European desire for wool, minerals and other raw materials saw the new invaders spreading across the continent to supply ‘… the woollen mills of Bradford and the copper smelters of Swansea and the butchers and bakers of Glasgow‘.[19] Australia’s first people knew nothing of the world outside their continent, they did not have the political means to unite in numbers to fight a common enemy armed with the products of the Industrial Revolution as ‘People who could not boil water were confronted by the nation which had recently contrived the steam engine‘.[20]

The meeting of the Aboriginal and European on the shores of Australia in the 18th century must rank among the world’s most anachronistic cultural encounters. Today we are acutely aware of the contrast between the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer and that of a modern European, the Aboriginal comprising small bands of nomadic people following seasonal food sources and moved by a spirituality derived from the land, and the recently-arrived city-dwellers with a mode of life based on ‘crops and herds, granaries and specialist craftspeople, with strong rulers and professional armies controlling large states and territories[3] and a culture that had passed through an agricultural revolution moving it towards an industrial revolution that would transform the world.

Aboriginal impact on the land is not immediately apparent but the European settlers arrived with the technology of the industrial revolution and though they have occupied the continent for only 250 years, about 0.5% of the total period of human occupation, their environmental impact is evident across the continent.

Today we can value the many lessons learned by different cultures adopting, as best we can, a philosophy of ‘live and let live‘ acknowledging that in 2019 Aboriginals are still seeking recognition in Australia’s constitution. We can view with some objectivity the former arrogance of colonialism, territorial expansion, and sense of moral and technological superiority have surely been tempered even if commercial demands continue. The debate over happiness, purpose, meaning and life values will no doubt be with us for many years to come.

— First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . minor additions and amendments – 1 June 2021

Uluru from Helicopter
Uluru is one of Australia’s most recognisable natural landmarks and has been a popular destination for tourists since the late 1930s. Uluru and Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, are the two major features of the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park. Uluru is a large sandstone rock formation in the southern part of the Northern Territory, 335 km (208 mi) south west of the nearest large town, Alice Springs.

On 15 December 1993 the European name ‘Ayer’s Rock’ was modified to ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru’, the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’ on 6 November 2002 following a request from the Regional Tourism Association in Alice Springs. The formation is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal people of the area, known as the Aṉangu and here there is an abundance of springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings. Uluru is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The local Aṉangu do not climb Uluru because of its great spiritual significance and have always requested that visitors do not climb the rock mainly because the path crossing a sacred traditional Dreamtime track. A ban took effect on the 26 October 2019.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Corey Leopold
Accessed 15 October 2020

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Aboriginal chain gang
Date and place unknown.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal Rock Art
Ubirr Art Site, Kakadu National Park
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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